Day 13: Underwater robots

On this cruise, a great deal of the research relies on our underwater robot (the ROV), and the crack team of pilots that spend their days sitting closely together in a metal container!
Will in the command unit

Let me introduce you to the team. First up there is Will, the ROV supervisor, who makes sure everything is running smoothly and is on hand to fix any problems which arise. Will has extensive experience with ROVs, from working at Woods Hole Oceanographic (WHOI) to freelance work at Southampton with ISIS. He constantly amazes us with his experiences, from 3D filming from helicopters and seeing erupting underwater volcanoes, to finding the Liberty Bell space capsule.

Paul deploying the ROV
Then we have the ROV pilots: Paul, a New Yorker who keeps everyone entertained with his jokes. A citizen of the world, he is now based in the sunny shores of Miami. Richie has a background working on ROV sensors, and has achieved his ambition of ROV-based science expeditions on this, his first science cruise! When he's not in the command unit or ROV area, he is regularly seen around the ship taking amazing photos. Martin (top photo) is the Willy Wonka of the team,  supplying sweets to the guys, which I'm sure helps the tense atmosphere when something unexpected happens!

Finally we have Dave from the National Oceanography Centre, our ISIS pilot who is learning all about the Holland I ROV we have onboard. Dave has a way with words, wanting to work with ROV exploration because it is the 'pinnacle of ocean exploration', and describing Antarctic hydrothermal vents 'like factories with smoke billowing out'!

These guys combine their experience to ensure that the scientists are happy, from collecting near bed multibeam data, to carefully sampling corals, sponges, crabs, brittle stars and even microbes!

Richie in the command unit
The process of ROV deployment and recovery is probably the most stressful part. First, the ROV frame is moved out and over the ocean, using the control panel on deck. The winch then slowly deploys the ROV, still attached to the tether management system (TMS). Once it is at 100 m, the pilot in the ROV unit takes over, sending the ROV and TMS down to just above the reef. The TMS then releases the ROV, just like a toddler on reins, so it can explore the mysteries of the deep. From here, the pilots control its every movement from the command unit, using the amazing 'mini-arms' to control the ROVs robotic arms, or manipulators. While this is all going on, the ROV pilot and co-pilot are joined in the command unit by two scientists, who get to choose their samples, control the HD camera and keep a running commentary as the adventure unfolds.